Thursday, October 05, 2006

Tales of Woodsman Pete

by Lilli Carre

I had never heard of Lilli Carre before Tales of Woodsman Pete arrived in my mailbox. This is a bizarre book that defies easy categorization, but after reading it I am anxious to read more of her work. The author page tells us that she is only 23, and I am more than a little curious as ot how someone so young can have achieved such an interesting and unique awareness of mood and pacing.

If I were to pick one adjective to describe Tales of Woodsman Pete, it would be "laconic". Everything presented in this volume is done so in a sparse, uncluttered and downright quiet fashion. It's odd how certain narrative effects instill synaesthetic identifications -- even though comics are by definition a silent medium, reading this volume brought to mind literal quietude, the reflective passivity of enforced solitude. The effect is predicated on a combination of techniques: predominantly empty panels filled with lots of negative space; only a handful of characters (only three who speak); the continuity of visual angles from panel to panel, so that characters appear to exist in a concrete reality that is demarcated only by the use of contiguous panels to indicate the passing of moment to moment. Very little changes in the pages of Woodsman Pete, and the perception of a static existence lends the at-times silly events a surprising gravity, very similar to some of the pathetic events of Chris Ware's suicidally depressing "gag" strips.

But back to the word "laconic". Laconic derives from the Greek lakonikos, a term used to describe the Spartan habit of speaking tersely. The term "Spartan" is important here, because this perfectly describes the lives of these characters. Both the titular Woodsman Pete and Paul Bunyan (who shows up in a series of interrelated vignettes) live alone (although Bunyan is, of course, accompanied by Babe the Blue Ox). Both characters have come into their solitude through a combination of choice and circumstances. Woodsman Pete chose to be a woodsman in a cabin far from the city, but he also lost his wife in unpleasant circumstances. Paul Bunyan wistfully pines for company, but is unable to so much kiss a woman for fear of accidentally smothering her. Although both figures appear on first examination to be whimsical creations, there is a darkness and melancholy on the edges of their lives that cannot be ignored.

It is telling that although the book follows an ostensible gag format, the "gags" themselves are less funny than contemplative, the punchline usually taking the form of a pause in action in which the reader is invited to reflect on the melancholy circumstances. It doesn't take long to figure out that Woodsman Pete is quite desperately unhappy, isolated from the world with only the trophies of his hunting trips to keep him company. He speaks primarily with Phillipe, a bearskin rug to which he confides his favoritism (although one moose head on the wall betrays a smattering of jealousy over this arrangement). Bunyan is trapped in a world in which he simply can't fit, and whose outsized appetites (of both the literal and sexual kinds) cannot be easily fulfilled.

As a stylist, Carre fits in fairly well with the likes of Paul Hornschemier and David Heatley, with their faux-punctilious adaptations of conventionally banal graphics into surreal themes. In terms of mood, however, she reminds me of no one so much as Renee French, another cartoonist who never fails to instill seemingly childish narratives with a sense of pervasive grief and almost existential despair. (Perhaps I overstate the latter case, but French's work in particular has always freaked me out, and I can't really look at it without being disturbed in some way.) In any event, she's got an assured style that serves her subject matter well, conveying a great deal of otherwise inexpressible elements of tone and mood through narrative method. Fairly sophisticated and surprisingly focused work for such an untested cartoonist.

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